This black and white photograph depicts a sandy beach sloping down towards the sea, which can be seen towards to top left-hand corner of the image. Approximately half of the beach is covered in patches of dark seaweed. Within this part of the beach a bold dark line stretches from the left-hand edge of the print before curving into a spiral just above the centre of the photograph. Below the photograph, on the off-white mount, the words ‘A SCULPTURE LEFT BY THE TIDE’ have been handwritten in red pencil, and below these, the words ‘CORNWALL ENGLAND 1970’ in graphite pencil.
Richard Long made this spiral shaped sculpture on a beach in Cornwall using seaweed that had been washed up by the tide. He then photographed it from an oblique angle. He subsequently used this photograph, uncaptioned, on the announcement cards for his 1970 exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in New York, along with a reproduction of England 1968 1968 (Tate AL00210), also uncaptioned. Both photographs were posted along with a postcard of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, under which the legend of the hill’s origin had been printed (see Tate AL00214). One of the central works in the Dwan Gallery exhibition was A Line the Length of a Straight Walk From the Bottom to the Top of Silbury Hill 1970 (see Tate AL00214), the spiral shape of which reflects that of A Sculpture Left by the Tide.
A Sculpture Left by the Tide was made in the same year as American artist Robert Smithson’s seminal land work Spiral Jetty, which shares the same spiral shape. However, whereas Smithson’s sculpture was made out of basalt rock and salt crystals on a monumental scale and was intended to become a permanent feature of the Great Salt Lake landscape in which it was made, Long’s spiral made out of seaweed was more modest in scale and ephemeral in nature. For art historian R.H. Fuchs, the transience of Sculpture Left by the Tide is what makes the work ‘most moving’:
Sculpture Left by the Tide introduces duration in time as part of the sculpture’s existence. Material, place and time, perfectly matched, are in fact part of the same movement of the sea meeting the beach. The sea at high tide deposits drifting seaweed on the beach. The artist moves the seaweed, which is slowly dying, into the finite form of the spiral which in itself is a figure of slow movement. There the sculpture awaits the next high tide, six hours later, which will wash it away. The six-hour existence of the sculpture tells us about the eternal movement of the sea. What I want to stress is how perfectly form and material were suited to the place: the beach. Sculpture Left by the Tide is a work made within the limits and conditions of the place, with no attempt to invade the place or overwhelm it with structures or materials not belonging to it.
(Fuchs 1986, p.133.)
The ephemeral nature of much of Long’s work made during this period reflected the concerns of North American conceptual artists such as Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt and Douglas Huebler who sought to create ‘dematerialised’ art (that had little or no physical form or was ephemeral) in order to question the materialist values of consumer society and even circumvent the art market. However, for Fuchs, and indeed for Long, the transience of A Sculpture Left by the Tide has less to do with countering consumerism and more to do with the timeless processes of nature. Long has reflected that
People make a big deal about ephemerality and, in a way, I was never interested in it. The most important thing for me was to make whatever I wanted to make. And if the result was ephemeral, so be it. But some works did exist for a particular or specific amount of time, like A Sculpture Left by the Tide in Cornwall. The idea of that was that the sea leaves its natural pattern of seaweed on the beach every time the tide goes out and has done for millions of years, and my work imposed another pattern in that cycle for the space of one tide, for six hours. So sometimes the temporary can illustrate the timeless.
(Wallis 2009, p.174.)
R.H. Fuchs, Richard Long, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 1986, p.133, reproduced p.18.
Ben Tufnell (ed.), Richard Long: Selected Statements & Interviews, London 2007, p.99.
Clarrie Wallis (ed.), Richard Long: Heaven and Earth, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2009, pp.174, 195, reproduced pp.76, 196.
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